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The Power of Apology


Explanations > Relationships > The Power of Apology

Without apology | With apology | Apology in action | So what?


Many people are very sensitive, easily feeling slighted, insulted, ignored or otherwise socially harmed when other people act in ways outside of personal values and social norms. An apology can go a long way to restoring social harmony with them.

Without apology

Left without repair, a person hurt stays hurt. And the greater the hurt felt, the greater and more durable the grievance will be. In fact as the person reflects on the hurt, the pain may grow and the required reparation increases (which is why timely apology is essential).

Without apology, it maybe assumed the assailant either does not care or deliberately intended harm. This makes them bad or evil and deserving of significant punishment.

With apology

With due apology, a remarkable amount of sin may be forgiven. The key message is that harm was not intended. Apology also sends a message of care and concern for the other person, further mollifying them. Even a simple 'sorry' can be enough to defuse and restore balance.

Apology in action

When the other person goes silent or behaves oddly, probe gently for the cause. Ask them 'What's up?' If they say 'Nothing', describe how they are behaving and wait for a response.

If they indicate that you have said or done something to upset them, then you must decide how to respond. The first step is to pause and think. Play out the possible conversation and seek an approach that will get the best long-term effect, not just short-term satisfaction (although this can also be important).

There are two goals in apology. First, is to repair feelings and make good in the short term. The longer-term action is to seek ways to prevent the problem ever happening again.

There are three basic responses you can use:

1. Accept what they say and apologise fully

This can shift the balance of power either way. First and most obviously it can give them power, reinforcing over-sensitivity and encouraging them to demand apology more often.

Also, it can demonstrate and strengthen your power. If you apologize without excuse, you show empathy and humility. You defuse argument and demonstrate care for the relationship. You also subtly imply you have enough power to stop them taking advantage of your humility. In this way, powerful people can abase themselves without fear of attack and in so doing increase their power.

2. Explain the situation as a misunderstanding and apologise for your inadequate communication

The most common cause of differences between people is misunderstanding which, if cleared up, can resolve much bad feeling.

Apologizing for miscommunication often strikes a fair balance that is acceptable for the other person while avoiding accepting an implication of blame that positions you as bad. It gives you power as a seeker of truth, having the integrity of care without caving in when blamed.

3. Reject what they say as not needing any apology

This is a common response, often done as coping with a perceived attack. Rejection is a direct use of power that dismisses the right of the other person to feel aggrieved. It rebuffs the attack and may add a counter-attack, for example in suggesting they are over-sensitive or are trying to manipulate you.

If this approach succeeds, it may gain a reverse apology from them as they back down. If the other person does not truly feel apology is due, however, they will build a simmering resentment that can appear later in subtle revenge.

If dismissal or counter-attack fails, then a full-blown argument may ensue, with elevated emotions, shouting and yet still being unlikely to reach resolution.

So what?

Learn to apologize well with due humility and you will be forgiven many sins. Learn also to accept apology with grace and without recrimination.

See also

Apology, Argument, Pre-apology, Coping Mechanisms


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